The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon
“Where Fluorescent Lights Flicker”
at Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity’s
October 23, 2016 (23rd Sunday After Pentecost)
Luke 18: 9-14
I love telling others about books I have read. What better opportunity than right now to tell a large crowd my top five desert island books:
• Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop”
• Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”
• William Styron’s “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness”
• Annie Dillard’s “Holy the Firm”
• Frederick Buechner’s “Telling Secrets.”
As I pondered these gems, it struck me that all five books deal with people facing brokenness—feelings of insignificance, struggles with drunkenness, bouts of depression. And yet, in each book, delight mysteriously radiates through the darkness.
In “Telling Secrets,” for instance, Frederick Buechner writes of some broken people you might even know:
“They are sitting in the basement of a church…Fluorescent lights buzz overhead. There is an urn of coffee…In one sense they are strangers who know each other only by their first names and almost nothing else about each other. In another sense they are best friends who little by little come to know each other from the inside out instead of the other way around, which is the way we usually do it. They do not know each other’s biographies, but they know something about each other’s frailties, failures, fears. They know something too about each other’s strengths, hopes, gladness and about where they have found them…
“The meeting in the basement begins with all of you introducing yourselves. ‘I am Fred…I am Mary…I am Scotty,’ you say, and each time the rest of the group responds with ‘Hi, Fred…Hi, Mary…Hi, Scotty.’ Just by getting yourself there and saying that, you have told an extremely important secret, which is that you cannot go it alone. You need help. You need them…”
And then this: “I believe that the church has an enormous amount to learn from them. I also believe that what goes on in them is far closer to what Christ meant his church to be, and what it originally was, than much of what goes on in most churches I know…They have no preachers, no choirs, no liturgy, no real estate. They have no creeds. They have no programs. They make you wonder if the best thing that could happen to many a church might not be to have its buildings burn down and to lose all its money. Then all that the people would have left would be God and each other.”
Frederick Buechner understands what many of us sense: God is often found in unexpected places among surprising people.
This is exactly what occurs in this evening’s reading from Luke (which, by the way, is woven into this evening’s Bach cantata, “Mein Hers Schwimmt im Blut”).
There is a Pharisee. Now, be careful: the word “Pharisee” too easily sets off judgmental alarm bells, alerting us that self-righteous prigs have drawn near. I must tell you, most pastors, including this one, long to have a few Pharisees in the church. After all, they are the ones who pray regularly, will serve on any silly committee, and give 10 percent to every church appeal that pops up. We pastors prefer Pharisees on our church councils to thieves, rogues, and adulterers.
Remarkably, however, Jesus opts for the miserable tax collector over the righteous Pharisee. How could he choose the one with the striking resemblance to those who gather in church basements and cry out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector is a mess and he knows it. He never dreams of being ushered to the front pew of any sanctuary; he always sits way in the back.
This is my third Bach Vespers. Some of you have already confessed to me, “Don’t expect to see me around here on Sunday morning. “I’m an agnostic,” you say, or even refer to yourselves as atheists. “To be honest, reverend, I come here just for the music.” Do you feel a bit removed from the so-called “holier company” that gathers here on Sunday morning—at what we might call the “big boy and big girl worship service”? Come to think of it, do you cry out the words of this evening’s cantata:
My heart swims in blood,
since the offspring of my sins
in the holy eyes of God
make me a monster.
How astonishing that Jesus lovingly says of a person pretty just like you, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus’ words, “those who humble themselves will be exulted,” are the looming hope of all manner of foul-ups who repeatedly stumble. They should, of course, be the looming hope even of those of us who imagine we have it all together. Jesus’ words sound much like those from Bach’s cantata:
How joyful is my heart,
for God is appeased…
As the fluorescent lights flicker and the coffee pot gurgles, may you all hear our Savior say, “Come one, come all.”